The CDC Is Investigating Palo Alto's Teen Suicide Problem

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
A rise in suicides among teens in notoriously well-to-do Palo Alto, CA has made a serious impact on the community — and puzzled health experts as well. Now, a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is visiting the city to help investigate what's behind it and what can be done.

“We assume that because [these kids] have money and a good education, everything is fine,” Suniya Luthar, PhD, told The Atlantic in an in-depth report back in December. But the numbers show just how worrying an issue this has become: Six teens died by suicide in Palo Alto between 2009 and 2010, according to local news reports. Another eight died from 2014 through 2015. And in Santa Clara County as a whole, an average of 20 teens and young adults died by suicide every year between 2010 and 2014. According to some estimates, Palo Alto's suicide rate is four or five times the national average.

As part of Palo Alto's Project Safety Net, the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) were called in to make a field visit this week to assess the situation. They'll go through the data, meet with community organizations, and analyze media coverage of the recent suicides to see if it met reporting guidelines.

Following reporting guidelines is very important as multiple studies show that certain types of coverage — the kind that sensationalizes or is graphic in nature, for example — can raise the risk of suicide in those who are vulnerable. Even though mental illness isn't at all contagious like say, the flu, researchers have also observed that suicide risk can spread among people who are close.

Suicide is a complex issue with many potential causes, including mental health disorders (which are treatable). The goal for the experts convening in Palo Alto will be to create suicide prevention recommendations specifically for the factors affecting the community.
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The investigation comes just after the United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommended that all adults be evaluated for depression and suicide risk, including pregnant women. Just last month the American Academy of Pediatrics also recommended that teens be screened for depression every year. Although screening like this may feel too extreme — or even invasive — to some, researchers argue that casting as wide a net as possible is the only way to make sure no one falls through the cracks.
If you are thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or the Suicide Crisis Line at 1-800-784-2433.
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